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10.08.2014 @ 23:58 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The spring and autumn are dominated by the classics while the middle of the season is loaded with big stage races. Those two different kinds of races come together in the Dutch/Belgian stage race Eneco Tour which combines a number of stages in well-known classics terrain with a couple of sprint stages and a time trial to form a race for the one-day and time trial specialists. Having initially been criticized for its less exciting and sprint-heavy courses, the race has now found its format and is one of the major targets for some of the riders that usually dominate the spring.

 

Racing in Belgium is loaded with history but the emphasis has always been placed on one-day races and the country's many esteemed classics. Held for the first time in 1908, the Tour of Belgium has struggled to gain the popularity that national tours have had in the southern part of Europe and stage racing has mostly been neglected in one of cycling's most important areas.

 

When the ProTour was introduced in 2005, the well-established Tour of the Netherlands was deemed too easy to make it onto the sport's finest calendar and so the organizers sought help from the Tour of Belgium and the Tour of Luxembourg in an attempt to create a Tour of Benelux that could be included in the newly-founded race series. The cooperation with the Luxembourgish organizers never materialized but the Belgians and Dutchmen found together in a collaboration that allowed the Dutch tour to develop into a two-country race that made it onto the ProTour calendar. Suddenly, the Belgians not only had classics but also a stage race in the highest echelon.

 

During its first years, the race had difficulty finding its right format and many criticized the courses for being too easy and the event for having too many stages for the sprinters. Often the race was loaded with bunch sprints and only a single hilly stage and the crucial time trial decided the GC. The Dutch and Belgian geographies mean that the race will always have numerous opportunities for the fast finishers but the organizers have since toughened up the race by including more stages in the hard classics terrain and the race has now found its right mix between sprint stages and more difficult days for the one-day specialists.

 

What makes the race exciting is that it takes the riders back onto the roads that have been the scene of some dramatic racing in the spring season but that are rarely used in the second part of the season. Usually the event has a stage that includes many of the Flemish hellingen that characterize the Tour of Flanders, a stage held in the hilly Limburg province that hosts the Amstel Gold Race and a stage in the Wallonian Ardennes that are the scene of the Fleche Wallonne and the Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Those classics stages are combined with a number of days for the sprinters and a time trial to form a race for the versatile riders and classics and time trial specialists. As usual, the weather plays a crucial role in this part of the world and there is always the preeminent danger of crosswinds that can blow the race to pieces.

 

Despite the more difficult stages, the terrain is not hard enough to produce big time gaps and bonus seconds often play a crucial role. The most decisive stage is always the rather short time trial. No one will win the Eneco Tour without having the ability to race against the clock and the winners' list is a testament to that. The inaugural edition was taken by Bobby Julich and since then Stefan Schumacher, Jose Ivan Gutierrez (twice), Edvald Boasson Hagen (twice), Tony Martin and Lars Boom have all won the event. With a tougher course, however, the door is now open for more versatile riders as well and last year the race had its first winner which is not known as a real specialist when Zdenek Stybar used strong rides in the hills to take the victory. The overall winner is usually a versatile rider that can stay in contention on the hills, manage the battle for position and the crosswinds, potentially pick up a couple of bonus seconds in some sprints and finish it off with a high-level time trial.

 

Due to its scheduling close to the Vuelta, one might expect the race to be a perfect preparation for the Spanish grand tour but the race has never developed into such a warm-up race. The kind of racing on offer is not very similar to the one found in the mountainous Spanish race and most riders prefer to improve their condition in the hilly Vuelta a Burgos or Tour de l'Ain rather than on the flat roads in Belgium and the Netherlands. For the sprinters, it is of course different and many of the fast finishers use the race to get their fast legs going ahead of the three-week race in Spain. On the other hand, the Vuelta has had very few opportunities for the sprinters in the two most recent editions and so many of the fast riders avoid the Spanish grand tour.

 

Instead, the Eneco Tour has evolved into a major target in its own right. For the time trial specialists, it represents a rare chance to pick up some WorldTour points without having to overcome some enormous mountains while the classics riders relish the chance to race in their preferred terrain at a time when those opportunities are limited. With the growing importance of points, more and more teams see the Eneco Tour as a great opportunity to increase their tally in a race that is not overly difficult.

 

While the race attracts lots of classics specialists, it is also a big target for the sprinters and the event usually fields one of the strongest line-ups of fast finishers. This year is no exception as André Greipel, Peter Sagan, Nacer Bouhanni, Sacha Modolo, Giacomo Nizzolo, Tom Boonen, Barry Markus, Jens Debusschere, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Luka Mezgec, Matthew Goss, Leigh Howard, Aidis Kruopis, Tyler Farrar, Nikolai Trussov, Mikael Kolar, Alexander Porsev, Andrea Guardini, Jacopo Guarnieri, Borut Bozic, Jose Joaquin Rojas, Juan Jose Lobato, Davide Appollonio, Yannick Martinez, Michael van Staeyen and Roy Jans are all ready to battle it out in the flat stages.

 

Last year, Zdenek Stybar took the biggest win of his career when he used a strong performance in the final weekend to become a surprise overall winner of the race. Already early in the race, the Czech had shown his cards when he was one of several riders to deny the sprinters in the flat stages by launching a late attack on stage 3 and beat Maximiliano Richeze and Lars Boom in a sprint. Having defended himself well in the time trial where his teammate Sylvain Chavanel took the lead, he dealt his rivals a first blow when he finished second behind lone escapee David Lopez in the queen stage that finished on the Cote de la Redoute, and one day later he took the jersey off Tom Dumoulin’s shoulders on the final day by winning the final stage of the Muur van Geraardsbergen. Dumoulin had to settle for second while Andriy Grivko completed the podium. This year Stybar and Dumoulin will resume their battle but Grivko will be absent as he is recovering from a hard Tour de France.

 

The course

As said, the Eneco Tour is usually a race for classics riders that can time trial. While the first editions of the race clearly favoured the time triallists, however, the most recent editions have been a lot harder and the classics riders have had a bigger chance, culminating with Zdenek Stybar’s victory in last year’s edition of the race.

 

This year the organizers have again designed a classic course that is made up of a number of flat stages, a time trial and a few “classics”. In 2014, however, it seems that time trialling will be less important than ever before. As it has been the case for a few years now, there is no prologue and this year’s time trial is only 9.6km long.  Furthermore, the race has maintained its two queen stages from last year’s race, the mini Tour of Flanders that finishes on the Muur van Geraardsbergen and the mini Liege-Bastogne-Liege that finishes on the Cote de la Redoute, and those two proved to be hard enough to almost erase the differences made in the TT. In addition to those two stages, the Amstel Gold Race stage has been made a lot harder and includes no less than 17 small climbs, meaning that differences can be made in this stage as well. Finally, the time trial comes pretty early in the race while the climbing is gathered in the final three days, meaning that the classics riders know exactly how much time they need to take back.

 

This year’s course may be split into two parts. The first four stages are completely flat and include three days for the sprinters and the 9.6km time trial. Unless the wind plays a role, the only time differences will be made in the individual discipline. The race comes to a very exciting conclusion with three “classics” in the final three stages, starting with a Tour of Flanders which is followed by a Liege-Bastogne-Liege and an Amstel Gold Race.

 

Stage 1:

Since the organizers decided to abandon the idea of an opening prologue in 2012, the Eneco Tour has usually started with a flat stage for the sprinters. 2014 will be no exception and after last year’s start in Belgium, it will be the Netherlands that sends off the peloton. The riders will start their race in Terneuzen in the completely flat part of the country where they will do a 181.9km circuit race around the city.

 

The centre of the stage is a 21.5km circuit around the city which will bookend the stage. First the riders will do a full lap with the first 5.3km being neutralized. Having returned to the finish, they will take on another 59.7km circuit that takes them through the area west of the city. After the next passage of the finish line, a 84.5km circuit in the area east of the city will challenge the riders before they end the stage with a final lap of the small 21.5km circuit.

 

The race may be made up of three different circuits but when it comes to the terrain, they are pretty identical. They are all completely flat and so the challenge won’t be the climbs. However, Terneuzen is located in the usually very windy Middelburg province close to the sea and so the wind has the potential to blow the race to pieces.

 

The finishing circuit is not very technical but near the finish there are a number of roundabouts. The final one comes 1.9km from the finish and from there the riders follow a wide road that has a number of sweeping left-hand bends, all the way to the finish line.

 

The sprinters will be licking their lips in anticipation of this first stage which will definitely be decided in some kind of sprint finish. On paper, it should play no major role in the GC but if it’s windy, it may turn out to be one of the most decisive stages of the entire race. In that case, it will be an extremely nervous and fast race and is almost guaranteed to be marred by crashes. A group is very likely sprint for the win but no one can be assured that the entire peloton will have made the selection.

 

Terneuzen has hosted stage finishes twice in the past. In 2007, Wouter Weylandt took one of the biggest victories of his short career while Daniele Bennati won another bunch sprint one year later.

 

 

Stage 2:

The sprinters that missed out on the opening day, will get an immediate chance to take their revenge as the race continues with another completely flat stage in the Netherlands. Overnight the riders have travelled a bit farther away from the coast but they are still in a part of the country that can be pretty windy.

 

The second stage will bring them over 175.8km from Waalwijk to Heusden which are located pretty close to each other and the race is again made up of a number of circuits. First the riders will travel the short 22.9km distance from the start to the finish and then they will do two laps of a 45km circuit that includes the same stretch and so takes them back to the start area twice.

 

Having completed the second lap of that circuit, the riders end the stage by doing a lap of an extended 63km circuit which includes an additional section in the area east of the finishing city of Heusuden. Like in the opening stage, the terrain is completely flat all day.

 

The finish is a bit more technical than it was in the opening stage. The riders will do a left-hand turn 2.8km from the finish before they turn left in a roundabout 1.6km from the line. The final 90-degree right-hand turn comes just 600m from the line, meaning that positioning for that corner will be very important for the outcome of the stage.

 

This stage will pan out in much the same way as the opening stage. If it’s windy, it could be one of the most decisive stages of the race and the racing will be extremely nervous. On a calm day, however, it will be a traditional sprint stage that is firmly controlled by the sprint teams. All teams line up some kind of fast finisher for this race and so it will be virtually impossible for the early breakaway to deny the sprinters their penultimate chance in the race.

 

 

Stage 3:

Unless the wind has played a role, the GC riders have stayed calm until now but on the third day it is time to prove their cards. The time trial is always a key component in the Eneco Tour and usually plays a crucial role in determining the outcome of the race.

 

As said, the importance may be a bit less than it has been in the past but it doesn’t mean that stage 3 is not one of the keys to win the race. This year the time trial comes a bit earlier than usual and it takes place in the Dutch city of Breda.

 

At only 9.6km it is shorter than usual which will definitely please the non-specialists. On the other hand, they will not be pleased with the lay-out of the course as this one is designed for the really powerful riders. It is a completely flat route that starts and finishes in the city centre and follows a mostly straight road to the southern outskirts of the city. Here the riders do a small loop which includes a few corners to break the monotony before they return to the mostly straight road that takes them back to the left-hand turn that leads them onto the 200m finishing straight.

 

Last year’s time trial was held on a hilly course in the Limburg province which favoured the classics riders who were able to limit their losses on a course that didn’t suit the real TT riders too well. This one is definitely one for the specialists and will be won by a powerful rider. Many riders, however, will be pleased to have the TT out of the way pretty early which means that they know how much time they need to take back in the final three stages.

 

 

Stage 4:

The sprinters will get one final chance to go for glory before the race enters the hills when they tackle the first stage on Belgian soil. On the fourth day, the riders will travel over 183.3km from Koksijde to Ardooie but even though we are pretty close to the heartland of the Flemish classics, the riders won’t head into the Flemish Ardennes, and it is another completely flat stage.

 

The riders will start in the coastal city of Koksijde which is well-known from the Driedaagse van de Panne and will kick things off by doing a lap of a flat 11.3km circuit of which 3.3km are neutralized. Then they will leave the coast by heading west before they turn around to reach the city of Diksmuide. From there they travel in a southerly direction until they reach Ieper and from there it is a northeasterly trek to the finishing city in Ardooie.

 

After 15.5km of racing, the riders will cross the finish line for the first time and as is typical for the Eneco Tour, the stage ends with a few laps of a finishing circuit. This time the riders will do two laps of a 15.4km circuit that was also used for the opening stage of last year’s race which had the same starting and finishing cities and a completely identical finale. Like the rest of the stage, it is completely flat.

 

The circuit is not very technical but the finale is pretty tricky. With 1.4km to go, the riders do three sharp turns in quick succession before they hit the 1.1km finishing straight. Last year Belkin used those turns to open a gap behind their lead-out man Mark Renshaw and the Australian managed to hold off the sprinters all the way to the line.

 

As the terrain is completely flat and is the final chance for the sprinters, this stage is destined to end in a bunch sprint. The only potential danger is the wind and the organizers have wisely designed the stage in a way that will see the riders travel in a lot of different directions. A windy day will make the racing very nervous but on a calm day, it is a straightforward stage for the sprinters.

 

Ardooie has hosted a stage finish every year since 2008. Tom Boonen was the first rider to win a bunch sprint while Tyler Farrar took the win one year later. In 2010, André Greipel was the fastest rider and he repeated the feat in 2011. In 2012, the city hosted the time trial which was won by Svein Tuft while Renshaw made his sneaky move to win last year’s stage in the Belgian city.

 

 

Stage 5:

After a few nervous days, it is time for the GC riders to play their cards in one of the hardest and most important stages of the race. Naturally, the race has usually included a stage in the Flemish Ardennes but in 2012, the organizers decided to make it a lot harder by making it finish on the famous Muur van Geraardsbergen. When it was announced that the famous climb would no longer be part of the Tour of Flanders course, the city of Geraardsbergen made an agreement with the Eneco Tour which ensures that the stage race would include a stage on the wall in 2012, 2013 and 2014. In the first two years, the stage came at the final day but this year it comes before the riders head into the Ardennes.

 

At just 165.8km, the stage doesn’t have the length of a classic but apart from the distance, it has all the ingredients of one of the major Flemish one-day races. The riders will tackle no less than 14 of the famous hellingen in the Flemish Ardennes and as they go up some of them multiple times, 20 climbs are spread throughout the entire course.

 

The stage both starts and finishes in Geraardsbergen and the first part consists of a 114.6km circuit in the area west of the city. The climbing starts already after 14.7km when the riders tackle the Hurdumont (650m, 8%) and from there the climbs come in quick succession. The first half is the easiest as the only additional climbs are Mont (2000, 4.7%), Kanarieberg (1000m, 9%) and Kruisberg (1400m, 5%) but after a short, flat section, there is no longer room for recovery. The Edelareberg (1600, 4%), Leberg (900m, 4%), Berendries (100m, 7%), Valkenberg (800m, 6%), Tenbosse (400m, 7%) – where bonus seconds are on offer – and Eikenmolen (600m, 6%) come in quick succession and lead to the 106.1km mark where the riders enter the finishing circuit.

 

The riders now do the tricky final 8.5km for the first time. First they tackle the Denderoordberg (700m, 8%) before they descend down to the bottom of the Muur (1100m, 8.7%). The finish line comes 600m up the climb and signal the start of the final two laps of the 25.6km finishing circuit. It’s a very tough affair with no less than 4 climbs. Having descended from the Muur, the riders go straight up the famous Bosberg (1000m, 6%) which is another climber no longer featuring on the Ronde course and which offers bonus seconds after both passages. It is followed by the easiest section of the circuit before the riders hit the Onkerzelestraat (1500m, 3%). At the top, there’s still 11.2km to go, with the first part made up of a descent before the riders again reach the final section with the Denderoordberg and the Muur whose first 600m lead directly to the finish at the end of the second lap. The riders do two right-hand turns just after the flamme rouge before heading onto the climb where there’s a left-hand turn just 200m from the line.

 

As said, the tricky finishing circuit has been used for the final stage of the 2012 and 2013 editions of the race and so it is now well-known by most of the riders. In the first edition, the peloton exploded to pieces on the Muur and in the end, Alessandro Ballan and Lars Boom emerged as the strongest. While the Italian took a rare victory on the famous Muur, the Dutchman gained enough time on then race leader Svein Tuft to win the race overall. Last year Zdenek Stybar took the jersey off Tom Dumoulin’s shoulders by finishing off a perfect display of team tactics. After Sylvain Chavanel had put the rivals under pressure, Stybar launched his own attack on the final lap to bridge the gap to lone escapee Ian Stannard. Accelerating hard from the bottom of the Muur, the Czech dropped his companion and soloed across the line to take both the stage and the overall victory.

 

The stage may be held in classics terrain and have a pretty tough finale but due to the shorter distance, it is of course not as selective as the Tour of Flanders. In 2013, 31 riders finished within a minute of the stage winner while in 2012 47 riders managed to reduce their time loss to less than 60 seconds. As in any classic, the weather will play a crucial role and team tactics will be equally important. It’s a day for the riders that excel in the cobbled classics and due to the finish on the Muur, punchy sprinting skills are of utmost importance. However, history shows that the time gains are pretty small if it all comes down to a final uphill sprint and so riders that have lost a bit of time in the time trial will have to make their moves a bit further out. In any case, it is not a day to gain minutes over the closest rivals but it is a great chance to take back the first small chunk of time.

 

 

 

Stage 6:

The Eneco Tour has always included a hard stage in the Ardennes but last year the organizers made it tougher than ever. In a tribute to Liege-Bastogne-Liege and its famous climb Cote de la Redoute, they designed a stage with a very tough finishing circuit that ended atop the famous ascent. The stage provided some of the most exciting and dramatic racing in the history of the race and so it is no wonder that the same circuit is back for the 2014 edition where it will serve as the scene for the finale of the queen stage.

 

The stage brings the riders over 173.9km from the Dutch city of Heerlen to the Belgian city of Aywaille halfway up the Cote de la Redoute and it is a day loaded with climbing. The riders will tackle 10 small hills but as some of them feature multiple times, the total number of ascents is 16. The hostilities kick off right from the start as the first part of the stage consists of a small circuit around Heerlen that includes the Bergseweg (2200m, 4%). In fact, the official start is given on the climb and it features again after just 11.6km of racing when the riders have done a full lap of the circuit and have started a long southerly journey towards the Liege-Bastogne-Liege terrain.

 

Along the way, they go up the Mamelisserweg (500m, 6%), Rugweg (1900m, 4.2%) and Schuttebergsweg (1800m 5.3%) before the cross the border after 35.7km of racing. The first climb on Belgian soil is the Cote de Hagelstein but then the easiest section of the course follows as there are no categorized climbs for the next 30km.

 

The finale kicks off at the 86.3km mark when the riders hit the Cote de Banneux (3500m, 5.6%) where there are bonus seconds on offer. After 99.9km of racing, they reach the finishing circuit and 800m further down the road, they hit the bottom of the Cote de la Redoute (1650m, 9.5%). The finish line is located 700m up the climb and after the first passage, the riders start their first of two laps of the 36.2km finishing circuit. There’s something to fight for right from the beginning as there are bonus seconds on offer at the top of the Redoute after the first two passage of the line.

 

The circuit is a very hilly affair with no less than 4 hard climbs. The first part is the easiest as there is a long descent from the top of the Redoute but in the second half, there is no room for recovery. The Cote de Fraiture (2600m, 5.2%), Cote de Chambralles (1550m, 9.5%) and Cote de Niaster (1800m, 7.7%come in quick succession before the riders hit the bottom of the Cote de la Redoute again. The finale is very technical as the riders do no less than four turns in quick succession after the 1400m to go mark and before they hit the bottom of the final 700m climb that has an average gradient of 7.8%. There’s another turn 500m from the finish but from there it is straight up the steep road to the line.

 

When the circuit was first used 12 months ago, the attacking already started on the penultimate lap and split the group of favourites in two. While riders like Zdenek Stybar, Tom Dumoulin, Jan Bakelants, Andriy Grivko and Daryl Impey found themselves in the first group, race leader Sylvain Chavanel, Wilco Kelderman and defending champion Lars Boom were among the many riders to be caught in the second one. Dumoulin and the Astana riders did a massive job to distance Chavanel while Stybar got a free ride as his French teammate was behind. The group almost caught the early escape of David Lopez, Maciej Paterski and Angel Madrazo on the lower slopes of the Redoute where Stybar launched a furious sprint. He passed the latter two but didn’t manage to catch the former who took the stage win. Dumoulin finished fourth and took the overall lead while Chavanel lost 57 seconds.

 

This is by far the most important stage of the entire race and the potential time gains are maybe even bigger than they are in the time trial. The early climbs are not very tough but the ascents on the finishing circuit are so hard that solid time differences can be made. It’s a day for puncheurs and strong climbers and it will be an elimination race where riders are constantly sent out the back door. Team tactics will be of crucial importance and like last year we can expect the attacking from the race leaders to start pretty early as the race needs to be hard for bigger time gaps to occur. Expect a dramatic and aggressive race that will definitely produce another shake-up of the overall standings.

 

 

 

Stage 7:

As usual, the organizers have included a hard final stage which means that all is still to play for on the last day of the race. The race has traditionally had a stage in the Amstel Gold Race terrain in the Dutch Limburg province but very often it has made little difference. The climbing has usually been located too early to be used for attacks but this year things may have changed. The finale of stage 7 is constantly up or down and even though the climbs are not as tough as they were in stage 6 and the most likely outcome is a sprint from a reduced peloton, there is a chance that a third consecutive classic could create some differences on the final day of the race.

 

At 183.4km, the stage starts in the Belgian city of Riemst and finishes in the Dutch city of Sittard-Geelen and it includes no less than 17 climbs. As many of them feature multiple times, the total number of ascents is no less than 22. The start of the stage is the easiest as the riders first do a lap of a circuit around Riemst that only includes the Muizenberg (650m, 6.6%).

 

From there, the riders travel in a westerly direction and go up the Cote Halembaye (1100m, 6.6%) just before they cross the border after 34.2km of racing. That marks the start of the climbing hostilities as the riders now tackle the Heiweg (1400m, 4.0%), Bergenhuizen (500m, 8.0%), Hoogcruts (700m, 5.0%), Loorberg (1400m, 5.3%), Camerig (1300m, 5.4%), Schuttebergsweg (1200m, 5.3%), Mamelisserweg (600m, 5.8%), Gulperberg (450m, 9.3%), Wittemerweg (800m, 4.9%), Eyserbosweg (1050m, 8.2%), Oude Huls (600m, 7.5%), Schanternelsweg (1000m, 6.0%) and Fromberg (1100m, 5.9%) in quick succession with very little room for recovery in between. Many of those climbs are well-known by most of the riders from the Amstel Gold Race and along the way they have turned to the north and are now heading towards the finish in Sittard-Geelen.

 

After the Fromberg, there is a short, flatter section that precedes the finale which kicks off with the Bergstraat (1000m, 7.0%) with 57.9km to go. Just after the top, the riders reach the finishing circuit and 1.2km later they contest the first intermediate sprint. Now they tackle the Windraak (700m, 4.5%) before they cross the finish line for the first time.

 

The final part of the stage is made up of two laps of a 24.2km finishing circuit that includes six climbs in quick succession. The Kollenberg (400m, 5.0%) comes 21.6km from the finish and there is unnamed ascent (300m, 6.5%) 2.7km further up the road. With 17.9km to go, the riders tackle the Sittarderweg (800m, 4.0%) while the Schatsberg (800m, 5.0%) comes 14.2km from the finish. There’s another unnamed climb (350m, 8.0%) 8.7km from the line while the Windraak is the final challenge with just 4.4km to go. On both laps, there are bonus seconds on offer at the intermediate sprint 7km from the finish.

 

After the Windraak, there is a short descent and then the final part of the stage is flat. It’s pretty technical as the riders do four turns between the 2.1km and 1.5km to go marks. Then a straight road leads to the final left-hand turn that comes just 400m from the line.

 

The stage offers lots of climbs but the hardest ones come pretty far from the finish. The ascents on the finishing circuit are pretty easy and many sprinters will be able to survive them. Depending on the situation in the GC, the candidates for the overall win may try to attack in the finale but the terrain is probably too easy to make a difference. For this stage to have an impact on the overall standings, it has to be made very hard from far out and the weather probably has to be pretty bad. A bigger time gaps have now opened up, it could be a day for a successful breakaway but some of the fast finishers may also fancy their chances on this course. The most likely outcome is that a reduced peloton will sprint for the win in Sittard-Geelen where a deserved overall winner of the hardest ever edition of the race will be crowned.

 

Sittard-Geelen is the only city to have hosted a stage finish in every edition of the race. In 2005, Simon Cadamuro won a bunch sprint while Manuel Quinziato narrowly held off the sprinters one year later when Cadamuro had to settle for second. In 2007, Sebastien Rosseler took a time trial win and Jose Ivan Gutierrez won the opening prologue in 2008. In 2009, Lars Bak held off a select group after a hard day in the Limburg province while Jack Bobridge was the strongest from a breakaway in 2010. In 2011, Edvald Boasson Hagen won a bunch sprint while Orica-GreenEDGE won the only team time trial in the history of the race in 2012. Last year the city hosted the time trial which was on by Sylvain Chavanel.

  

 

 

The favourites

Usually, the task of selecting the favourites for the Eneco Tour mostly consists of picking out the strongest time triallists and delete those of them that are unable to handle the harder stages. This year, however, the dynamics of the race has significantly changed. The shorter time trials should create a lot smaller time differences and the many hard stages should allow the classics riders to open bigger gaps. The Redoute stage is by far the hardest in the history of the race and as it is back on the course for the 2014 edition, the race is more open to non-time triallists than ever before.

 

Already last year Zdenek Stybar managed to use a combination of climbing skills, explosive attacks and sprinting to open enough gaps and score enough bonus seconds to win the race and this year that task should be even more manageable. The time trial may be more suited to specialists that last year’s hilly TT but due to the short distance, the classics riders should be able to limit their losses. The Ardennes stage will be a race of attrition that will rule out several heavy guys and Stybar proved that the Geraardsbergen stage is hard enough to open significant time gaps. With 10 bonus seconds on the line, a deficit from the TT can easily be erased.

 

The shorter time trial is not the only important change to the race. The inclusion of the Redoute stage whittled down the number of potential winners significantly. That stage is so hard that the days when the heavy guys can go for the victory are over. Last year the stage proved to be too tough for the likes of Niki Terpstra and Lars Boom and nowadays the race is one for riders that excel in the Ardennes more than in the cobbled classics.

 

Hence, the race should come down to an exciting battle between the versatile time triallists who can handle the hard stage in the Ardennes and the explosive classics riders who will try to gain time in stages 5 and 6, both by opening gaps and by sprinting for bonus seconds. The race is loaded with riders of both types and this should make for a very interesting battle.

 

Last year Tom Dumoulin finished second in the race and this year he is back with the ambition of winning the race. Due to last year’s results, he will be a lot more confident in his chances but he is also a lot stronger. This year he has taken a massive step forward in several aspects and this makes him an obvious winner candidate.

 

Dumoulin has finished second behind Tony Martin in four time trials this year, including the only TT in the Tour de France, and on several occasions he has been very close to the world champion. He has proved that he belongs to the real elite of time triallists and he will be expected to battle it out with Fabian Cancellara for the win in the stage 3 time trial.

 

However, Dumoulin is much more than a pure time triallists. In fact he is a great climber too.  This year he finished 5th in the Tour de Suisse which offers much harder climbing than the Eneco Tour. He did well in the Ardennes classics as well and has stepped up his climbing level massively.

 

Last year Dumoulin was the second best of the GC riders in the Redoute stage and only lost 1 second to Stybar. Actually, he is pretty explosive and has not trouble handling the short climbs in the Ardennes. In fact, only the very best Ardennes specialists will be able to drop him on the race’s queen stage and they will have to make the race very hard to accomplish that mission. The stage is not as hard as the Ardennes classics and we doubt that they will be able to get rid of the Giant leader.

 

His main challenge is the Geraardsbergen stage which is a bit too explosive to suit him well. Last year he lost it all on the cobbled climbs and again he will go into that stage with the goal of limiting his losses. However, he is now a lot stronger and should do a lot better than he did 12 months ago. Like last year he has only raced criteriums since the Tour but he ended La Grande Boucle pretty fresh. With three weeks of hard racing in his legs, he should be in great condition and he is our favourite to win the race.

 

The Eneco Tour is decided on the climbs in the Ardennes, on the cobbles and in the time trials. Only rider is a real specialist in those three areas. Geraint Thomas is extremely versatile and is tailor-made for this race in which he has covered all the bases. He is a great time triallist and he has improved his climbing to such a level that he can now finish in the top 20 in Tour de France mountain stages. He is one of the very best riders for the cobbled classics and this year he finished in the top 10 in E3, Flanders an Roubaix, making him an obvious winner candidate in the Geraardsbergen stage.

 

Thomas does not have any experience in the Ardennes classics but he is strong on that kind of climbs. In this year’s Paris-Nice he took the leader’s jersey in a stage that was very similar to a race in the Ardennes and this should make him a candidate for stage 6 as well. He may not be as strong as Dumoulin in the time trial but he has a faster sprint and should be better in the classics stages.

 

The main concern is his level of fatigue as he seemed to be pretty tired at the end of the Tour. On the other hand, he went on to win the Commonwealth Games road race which suggests that he is still in pretty good condition. If he is still fresh enough for a hard one-week race, Thomas has the versatility that makes him an obvious winner candidate.

 

Defending champion Zdenek Stybar will be very pleased with the course which really plays to his talents. He should be able to limit his losses in the shorter time trial and the classics stages really suit him well. Last year he was the strongest GC rider in both the Geraardsbergen and Redoute stages and he could very well be so again in 2014.

 

There are definitely better climbers than Stybar but the Redoute stage is not as hard as an Ardennes classic. He has just finished 10th in the Clasica San Sebastian which is a lot harder race, and he was the strongest rider in the Tour de Wallonie. This suggests that he is in great condition and he will be able to a lot of damage on La Redoute. He is a lot more explosive than riders like Thomas and Dumoulin and this provides him with an option in stages 5 and 6 to take back time on the stronger time triallists.

 

Finally, Stybar is a very fast sprinter who is probably faster than both Thomas and Dumoulin. He is really punchy in an uphill sprint too and this should allow him to pick up bonus seconds along the way. Already after stage 3, he will know how much time he needs to take back and he definitely has the form to benefit maximally from the hard terrain.

 

We were pretty surprised to see Peter Sagan’s name on the provisional start list and it still remains to be seen whether the Slovakian will actually do the race. However, the Cannondale leader has all the skills to win this race which is probably the WorldTour stage race that suits him the best.

 

Sagan may not be known as a great time triallist but he is actually an excellent prologue rider. The TT may be a bit too long and non-technical to make him a stage winner candidate but he will definitely be able to limit his losses in stage 3. The Gerardsbergen stage is tailor-made for him and he will be the overwhelming favourite to win that one.

 

Sagan’s main challenge will be the Redoute stage which could be a bit too hard for him at his current state of form. If he is at 100%, however, there is no chance that anyone will be able to drop him and he would actually be the favourite to win that stage too. Finally, he is the only GC rider who can realistically go for bonus seconds in the bunch sprints which could quickly erase a big portion of his time loss from the time trial.

 

Our main concern is his form. He will be riding the Vuelta to prepare for the world championships which is his main goal and this means that he cannot allow himself to be too good at this moment. There is a big chance that he will only use this race to ease back into competition. However, Sagan has a very competitive mindset and he definitely has the skills to win this race.

 

If he had been at 100%, Philippe Gilbert would probably have been our favourite to win the race. This year’s course suits him down to the ground and seems tailor-made for him. As a former Belgian time trial champion, he can use stage 3 to gain time on the likes of Stybar and the stage is not so long that he will lose a lot to Dumoulin and Thomas. In this field, he is the best rider for the Redoute stage and he is a great rider for the Geraardsbergen stage too as he is a former podium finisher in the Tour of Flanders.

 

On paper, he should be able to open some significant gaps in stage 5 and 6 and with his fast sprint, he may take bonus seconds too. However, Gilbert has had a very bad build-up to this race which is a major goal for him. Illness took him out of the Tour de Wallonie and he hadn’t recovered for the Clasica San Sebastian which he had to abandon.

 

Since then he has been recovering and he will be riding the RideLondon Classic to gear up for the race. A few weeks with a lung infection, however, will definitely have had an impact on his condition and there is a big risk that he is not yet at 100%. To win in such against such a formidable opposition, he needs to be at his very best and that’s unlikely to be the case. However, Gilbert is a great bike rider and he remains a strong winner candidate on a course that suits him perfectly.

 

Gilbert is definitely not the only BMC option. The American team lines up a team that is loaded with potential winners of this race. Their second best card is Greg Van Avermaet who is riding exceptionally well at the moment. He was a constant presence in the lumpy Tour de France stages and even climbed better in the high mountains than ever before. He went on to finish in the top 10 in the Clasica San Sebastian whose new finale should actually have made the race a bit too hard for him.

 

Van Avermaet has big plans for the second half of the season and nothing suggests that his form is declining. This year he has his best ever chance to win the Eneco Tour as the route plays to his strength. Compared to most other favourites, he is a poor time triallist but this year he should be able to limit his losses on the short course. With two hard stages, he has lots of ground to gain time and his fast sprint and explosive climbing skills provides him with the means to do so. Being the in-form rider at the moment, Van Avermaet has a rare chance to win a major stage race.

 

Belkin may have a former winner of the race in Lars Boom but the Ardennes stage is likely to be too tough for the cobbles specialist. Instead, the best card on the team is Bauke Mollema who will benefit from the tougher course. Mollema may be mostly known as a stage race but he is a great rider for the Ardennes classics as well and in the last two years he has finished in the top 10 in almost all those races.

 

Mollema is usually also a solid time triallist but he will definitely lose a bit of time to the best in stage 3. Furthermore, he doesn’t have a lot of experience on the cobbles and he will be in defence mode in stage 5. However, he should be one of the strongest in stage 6 where he will benefit from his good uphill sprint. For him to win the race, that stage has to be very hard but if it turns out to be one for the strongest climbers he will be one of the best. He came out of the Tour in good condition as he progressed throughout the race and if he is still riding at the level that allowed him to finish second in San Sebastian he will be a danger man.

 

In the past, the Eneco Tour was a race tailor-made for Fabian Cancellara but as he has usually been riding the Tour till the end he has never done it before. This year he left the French race prematurely and now he will use the Eneco Tour to kick start the second half of his season that will culminate at the World Championships.

 

Unfortunately, he makes his debut in a year when the course doesn’t suit him very well. The shorter time trial is a clear disadvantage but his main problem is the Redoute stage. At 100%, he would be able to mix it up with the best in that kind of stage but he needs to be at his top level to do so. As his main goal is the Worlds, we doubt that he is good enough to follow the best on the hardest day of the race. He showed solid condition in the Tour but since then he is likely to have backed off a bit to time his form perfectly for late September and this race may mainly serve to ease him back into competition before the Vuelta. On the other hand, Cancellara has the skills to win this kind of race and so he deserves an outsider status.

 

Rohan Dennis will be making his BMC debut in this race and it will be interesting to see how he handles a kind of racing with which he has no experience. He is one of the strongest time triallists and should be among the best in stage 3 but he has never done the classics. He has never been very strong in the battle for position and this will be a significant disadvantage in this kind of racing.

 

On the other hand, he is part of a very strong BMC team and if he does a strong time trial, his teammates will provide him with lots of support. He is a great climber that should be able to follow the best in stage 6 and he is actually pretty explosive too. Stage 5 should be a bit too explosive for him but if he can limit his losses on that day, his TT and climbing skills will bring him far. His form is a bit uncertain as he is mainly building for the Vuelta and hasn’t raced for a while and there is a chance that he will take it pretty easy in his first race back.

 

Lotto will be mostly focused on the sprints but they have a few cards to play for the overall as well. While the time trial will hamper Jelle Vanendert too much and stage 6 will be too hard for Jurgen Roelandts, Tim Wellens has the skills to excel in this race. He did a great time trial at his national championships and is an explosive rider who did a great performance in the Ardennes classics earlier this year.

 

Wellens was riding really strongly in the Tour de Wallonie and is obviously in great condition. However, there are stronger time triallists and better climbers than him and it will be hard for him to win the race overall. Nonetheless, he is knocking on the door for his first big WorldTour result and a hard stage in the Ardennes and a good time trial will provide him with options for this race.

 

***** Tom Dumoulin

**** Geraint Thomas, Zdenek Stybar

*** Peter Sagan, Philippe Gilbert, Greg Van Avermaet

** Bauke Mollema, Fabian Cancellara, Rohan Dennis, Tim Wellens

* Jelle Vanendert, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Daniel Oss, Lars Boom, Niki Terpstra, Silvan Dillier, Stijn Devolder, Ramunas Navardauskas, Sebastian Langeveld, Dylan Van Baarle, Nathan Haas, Sep Vanmarcke, Stephen Cummings, Bjorn Leukemans

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